Since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Western governments and analysts have periodically expressed fears that the Kremlin might try to escalate by using nuclear weapons. This anxiety stems directly from Moscow’s own nuclear threat rhetoric: indeed, Putin’s original announcement of the officially designated spetsial’naya voyennaya operatsiya (special military operation) against Ukraine included a warning against direct intervention by the United States and its allies, threatening them with unparalleled destruction (Interfax, February 24). The nuclear warnings continued with the successful testing of the Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on April 20—routine and duly notified but characterized by Putin as providing “food for thought” to potential adversaries (Krasnaya Zvezda, April 22). These warnings are key in the Kremlin’s strategy to manage conflict escalation by deterring the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) from considering directly intervening in the war. While the risk of nuclear confrontation between Russia and the US is possible, it is worth assessing the actual danger of a direct Moscow-Washington clash escalating to a nuclear exchange.
In October 2021, Andrei Kokoshin, Viktor Yesin and Aleksandr Shlyakhturov co-authored a two-part article in Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye (NVO), addressing issues of nuclear deterrence and escalation: Strategicheskoye Sderzhivaniye v Politike Natsbezopasnosti RF (Strategic Deterrence in the National Security Policy of the Russian Federation) (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, October 14, 21, 2021). The three experts have well-established credentials to address such strategic issues. Kokoshin is the deputy scientific director of the National Research University’s Higher School of Economics in Moscow, is a former secretary of the Russian Security Council, and is widely regarded as the country’s leading civilian defense specialist and strategist. Colonel General (ret.) Yesin is a former chief of the Main Staff of the Strategic Missile Forces (RVSN). And Colonel General (ret.) Shlyakhturov is a former head of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff.
In their pair of articles, the authors assert that “The core of convincing strategic deterrence in Russia’s national security policy has been and remains a demonstration of the ability, under any—[even] the most unfavorable— conditions to carry out a retaliatory [nuclear] strike with catastrophic consequences for the aggressor.” They provide an outline covering various complex aspects of strategic deterrence, including political-military-psychological influence as well as military-strategic, military-technical and information-based elements. In this context, the writers note, “Political-military deterrence may also be accompanied by the threat of other harsh political and economic measures against the ‘opponent’ even before the threshold of the use of the Armed Forces.” This has been at play since February 24. They continue, “Many theorists and practitioners of deterrence have rightly noted and continue to note that for effective deterrence, the threat must look plausible. At the same time, the credibility of such a threat depends on the risks and costs that the deterrent may have in demonstrating such a threat” (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, October 14, 2021).
Citing Russia’s National Security Strategy approved by Putin on July 2, 2021, their article underscores that maintaining strategic stability is in the national interests of the country and is one of the “strategic national priorities of the Russian Federation” (paragraphs 8, 25, 26): “One of the fundamental problems of strategic stability is to prevent the confrontation from moving to the most threatening situation, to a situation of loss of control over the situation (including by both sides).” Consequently, the military experts add, “The prevention of nuclear conflicts seems to be a particularly important task. At the same time, nuclear conflicts can be understood as crisis situations in which one or more possessors of nuclear weapons are involved and during which the escalation reaches the level when one or more parties begin to consider the practical possibility of using nuclear weapons” (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, October 14, 2021).
Prior to reaching the level of nuclear war, the trio of authors refers to the escalation ladder of escalation, which, they state, represents the 12th from a total of 17 possible stages. Although their two-part article does not provide further details of this theoretical conflict escalation framework, they undoubtedly refer to their own in-depth study published earlier in 2021, together with former Chief of the General Staff (2004–2008) Army General (ret.) Yury Baluyevskiy: Voprosy Eskalatsii i Deeskalatsii Krizisnykh Situatsii, Vooruzhennykh Konfliktov i Voin (Escalation and Deescalation of Crises, Armed Conflicts, and Wars).
The three experts also draw upon Herman Kahn’s 1965 work that presents 44 rungs on the “ladder of escalation,” applied contemporaneously to great power competition in the information era but with the number of “rungs” reduced to 12—the point at which the nuclear threshold is crossed. The dozen points of escalation, from crisis to ending with a strategic nuclear exchange, are as follows (Voprosy Eskalatsii i Deeskalatsii Krizisnykh Situatsii, Vooruzhennykh Konfliktov i Voin, 2021):
- Aggravation of a crisis, including information operations and economic sanctions;
- Threats made by both sides concerning resorting to military force, extending to protecting allies;
- Escalation of the political crisis accompanied by information operations and confrontation, gray zone demonstrations of force (military exercises, long-range strategic aviation flights, movement of forces) without direct combat;
- Hybrid warfare, including use of special forces, proxies, private military companies, and large-scale political, economic and psychological warfare;
- Intentional or unintentional provocative incidents in the interaction between great powers;
- Local conventional warfare with limited aims;
- Regional war conducted in all warfare domains, with impact on global markets, resulting in bringing nuclear powers closer to direct conflict;
- Limited conventional warfare aimed at defeating the adversary while avoiding attacking space-based systems;
- Large-scale conventional war avoiding targeting urban centers or energy infrastructure but also using cyber weapons against military targets in the theater of operations and beyond;
- Large-scale conventional war accompanied by cyber operations to disrupt state administration and civilian infrastructure of the enemy;
- Conventional war with disruption of large urban centers and targeting of adversary energy and critical infrastructure with the scale of destruction close to the use of weapons of mass destruction;
- Nuclear conflict, using one or more nuclear weapons crossing the nuclear threshold as an instrument of direct political and military pressure/coercion.
In their two-part article, Kokoshin, Yesin and Shlyakhturov remind their readership of the joint statement on strategic stability by the US and Russian presidents and adopted on June 16, 2021, which asserted,“Today, we reaffirm our commitment to the principle that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be started.” While the analysis of the escalation ladder—set out prior to the war in Ukraine—offers insight into how Moscow might perceive certain steps by Washington and its allies, there is ambiguity as to which of these rungs the current wider crisis in US-Russia relations currently stands on.